Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Mag Wheels (1978)

Utterly generic teen-sex junk about pretty young white people cavorting and fighting in the Southern California sun, Mag Wheels revolves around a romantic triangle between van-driving jerk Steve (John McLaughlin); his possessive girlfriend, Donna (Verinka Flower); and hot new girl in town Anita (Shelly Horner). Only Anita is remotely sympathetic, since the filmmakers show snippets of her rough home life with a domineering ne’er-d0-well father. After Steve gets an eyeful of Anita wearing a bikini at the beach one day, he loses interest in Donna, so Donna conspires to ruin Steve’s life by telling the cops he’s a coke dealer. Then Donna convinces Steve that Anita was the narc, so he and several of his buddies try to gang-rape Anita for revenge until several lady truckers rescue her. (Yes, that’s really the plot.) The whole mess culminates in a Rebel With a Cause-style drag race. Whereas most teen-sex movies forefront lighthearted comedy, albeit of the crudest possible sort, Mag Wheels wobbles between jokey scenes (such as a weird subplot about Steve treating an underclassman like a fraternity pledge) and grim melodrama. None of it works. The jokes are laborious and mean-spirited, while the drama is contrived and downright cruel. Meanwhile, the acting is rotten and the filmmaking is rudimentary. Only viewers with insatiable appetites for ogling young flesh should seek out Mag Wheels, but fair warning—much more screen time is devoted to storytelling than to smut, unless fetishistic angles of trucks and vans count as money shots.

Mag Wheels: LAME

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Sidecar Racers (1975)

          Generally speaking, calling a film “ordinary” is not a compliment—but in the right context, it’s not precisely a dig, either. Sidecar Racers, a sports melodrama coproduced by American and Australian companies, hits nearly every cliché associated with sports films, and the characterizations are just as trite as the plotting. Yet one gets a sense of actors and filmmakers contributing the best efforts possible given the circumstances, since it’s clear neither the budget nor the schedule was quite sufficient for making a picture with plentiful action scenes and location changes. Even more praiseworthy is what the film lacks. Seeing as how the potential for a romantic triangle simmers just below the surface of the narrative, it would have been easy to edge this picture into a rougher style, accentuating sex during off-the-track scenes. Opting for a more family-friendly style works in Sidecar Racers’ favor. The movie isn’t much, but at least it’s inoffensive and relatively sincere.
          Jeff (Ben Murphy) is an American athlete bumming around Australia after his Olympic career ends. One day while surfing, he catches the attention of Lynn (Wendy Hughes), the lover of volatile sidecar racer Dave (John Clayton). She envisions Jeff taking the place of Dave’s old partner, who died during a race. A tryout run proves that Jeff’s superior balance control suits sidecar racing, so the trio makes a go of it, eventually winning several matches and nearly qualifying for sponsorship from Lynn’s father (Peter Graves), who has previously shown nothing but contempt for the reckless and selfish Dave.
          Although nothing that happens in Sidecar Racers is fresh or imaginative, the stunt work in racing scenes is wild, giving a real sense of danger as men riding alongside motorcycles dangle their helmeted skulls just inches above the ground at insane speeds. Additionally, all of the actors give serviceable performances, with occasional moments connecting emotionally. If all of this sounds too shallow for you, then you’re wise to steer clear—but if adequately rendered sports stuff with a little Aussie novelty seems like a agreeable diversion, you’ll get exactly that from Sidecar Racers.

Sidecar Racers: FUNKY

Monday, January 29, 2018

Snakes (1974)

          Sometimes the only way to begin a conversation about an insane movie is to describe the plot. Snakes, alternately known by Fangs and other titles, is set in small-town Texas. “Snakey” Bender (Les Tremanyne) lives alone on a run-down property owned by his buddy, Burt (Richard Kennedy), who long ago moved into town. “Snakey,” a slovenly geezer who always wears greasy overalls and drives a broken-down car missing the truck hood, earned his nickname by assembling a huge collection of serpents. Every Wednesday, “Snakey” drives into town and collects mice local schoolchildren have gathered as food for his reptiles, in exchange for letting the kids gawk at the slithering creatures. After that, “Snakey” hooks up with Burt for weekly “concerts,” which involve them getting drunk and marching half-naked through Burt’s living room while listening to John Philips Sousa marches on Burt’s stereo. Then “Snakey” concludes his Wednesday rituals by visiting schoolteacher Cynthia (Bebe Kelly), the patron behind his supply of mice. What’s her angle? Every Wednesday night, “Snakey” lets Cynthia pleasure herself with Lucifer, the largest serpent in his menagerie.
          But what—there’s more! The weekly routine gets thrown off-kilter when Burt marries an exotic dancer named Ivy (Janet Wood). Concurrently, portly shopkeeper Bud (Bruce Kimball) and his rotund lesbian sister, Sis (Alice Nunn), become preoccupied with getting Cynthia into a threesome—even as slippery local preacher Brother Joy (Marvin Kaplan) endeavors to expose Cynthia’s unholy arrangement with “Snakey.”
          After taking forever to set up these bizarre plot threads, cowriter/director Arthur A. Names pulls things together with contrivances that turn “Snakey” against the people in his life. One by one, he lures them to his place and subjects them to torture involving snakes. All but Cynthia, of course, who—well, let’s just say she dies doing what she loves, and it’s quite a thing to see. Although Snakes is fairly tame in terms of gore and sex, notwithstanding Ivy’s lengthy striptease number, everything about the plot is so perverse that the movie has a certain forbidden-fruit appeal. Accentuating this quality is the presence of Tremayne in the leading role, since nerds of a certain age will recognize him as “Mentor” from the old Saturday-morning TV show Shazam! (19741977). Watching this movie makes it difficult to reconcile innocent memories of him driving around the countryside in a Winnebago with a little boy who magically turns into a muscular stud when the need arises.
          Like so many other oddities from the cinematic fringe, Snakes benefits (if that's the right word) from crude execution. The lack of technical polish adds to the sense of this picture being a transmission from the outer edges of the human experience. How else can one describe a film with the following running joke? After each murder, “Snakey” loads the body into a car, pushes the car off the cliff, and struts home to the accompaniment of yet another Sousa march. Plus we haven’t even gotten to the bit when “Snakey” forces a captive Brother Joy to rub a fish all over his body, or the scene in which “Snakey” suspends Sis on a swing over barrels, or . . .

Snakes: FREAKY

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Girls for Rent (1974)

          Fact One: Girls for Rent is also known as I Spit on Your Corpse. Fact Two: The flick’s leading actress is porn star Georgina Spelvin. Fact Three: Helming this picture is the one and only Al Adamson, whose extensive filmography overflows with grindhouse schlock. Given these strikes against the movie, it’s surprising to report that Girls for Rent is nearly watchable. The plot makes sense, more or less; there’s quite a bit of action, especially during the last 30 minutes or so; and Spelvin occasionally musters a formidable sort of seen-it-all toughness. By the normal standards of Al Adamson flicks, these are exceptional strengths. Having said all that, Girls for Rent is still a low-budget quickie starring a skin-flick performer, so viewers know what to expect here—lots of grimy sex scenes that drag on interminably, with Adamson’s camera lingering crudely on every grope and gyration. Moreover, it’s not as if removing, say, 10 minutes of dull smut would have elevated this picture to respectability. This thing’s trash.
          Glossing over the needlessly convoluted and time-consuming setup, the movie proper begins when hooker Donna (Susan McIver) doses a client with a knock-out drug. Donna believes her job is to immobilize the guy and take compromising pictures, but it turns out the drug was lethal. She’s been set up. Donna flees, so her criminal bosses send badass ladies Erica (Rosalind Miles) and Sandra (Spelvin) to find and kill Donna. In typical Adamson fashion, what should have been a simple chase movie morphs into something shapeless, thanks to semi-comical interludes with creepy supporting characters and the aforementioned overlong screwing scenes. Eventually, Girls for Rent gets down to business with chases and fights, to say nothing of a truly grim final sequence. In sum, next time you’re craving mindless sleaze with a dash of nihilism, here’s the thoroughly disreputable movie for you.

Girls for Rent: FUNKY

Saturday, January 27, 2018

How Do I Love Thee? (1970)

          After conquering television in the 1950s, Jackie Gleason notched impressive achievements as a film actor in the 1960s, balancing credible dramatic work with loud comedic turns of the sort that made him famous. Then came flops including How Do I Love Thee?, Gleason’s last film for seven years and his final romantic leading role in a feature. Turgid and unfunny, How Do I Love Thee? is part character study and part romantic farce. Gleason plays Stanley Waltz, the aging proprietor of a small moving-and-storage company. Vexing Stanley are his wife, Elsie (Maureen O’Hara), a Bible-thumper constantly telling Stanley to embrace God, and Stanley’s son, Tom (Rick Lenz), a philosophy professor caught in a power struggle with uptight superiors. At the beginning of the picture, Stanley suffers a seizure while visiting a religious shrine in Lourdes, France, with the devout Elsie, so Tom rushes overseas to visit his ailing father—who refuses to see him. Through flashbacks, we learn that in a past moment of weakness, Stanley pledged to embrace God and never speak to Tom again. (Long story.)
          The central question is whether a man can truly change. Alas, the filmmakers want the benefit of presenting a heavy topic without the hard work of properly exploring that topic, so they wriggle free of serious implications by way of silly plot contrivances.
          Playing to the cheap seats, Gleason does everything from physical comedy to poetry recitals to sappy speeches. It’s exhausting to watch. And when he plays comedic bedroom scenes with the equally uninhibited Shelley Winters, brace yourself for enough screaming to make anyone’s ears bleed. How Do I Love Thee? is one of those awkwardly “with-it” late ’60s/early-’70s pictures, in which older Hollywood professionals try to infuse hokey storytelling with youth-culture attitudes. Unfortunately, every time something contemporary edges into the mix, the filmmakers quickly retreat to more conservative tropes (for instance, an endless car-chase scene). Therefore How Do I Love Thee? is mildly interesting as a snapshot of culture in transition. As a cinematic experience, it’s confusing and tiresome. As a showpiece for its legendary star, however, it’s labored and overbearing, which feels just about right—love him or hate him, Gleason worked hard for his laughs. Here, the strain shows.

How Do I Love Thee?: FUNKY

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (1970)

          An American/French coproduction plainly designed to evoke Hitchcock’s style of intricate mystery/suspense plotting—as well as his affinity for kinky sexual undercurrents—The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun is as labored as its title. Adapted from Sébastien Japrisot’s novel by a cabal of writers, The Lady in the Car spins its web methodically, presenting one bizarre event after another until both the protagonist and the audience have good reason to worry about going mad. This means it’s hard to track the narrative from one scene to the next, and even harder to parse character motivations. That the film concludes with an Agatha Christie-style explanation sequence rightly indicates how far out of control the plot spins before the conclusion. Yet the movie is not without its charms, not least the presence of formidable costar Oliver Reed.
          Ad-agency secretary Danielle “Dany” Lang (Samantha Eggar) works for the stern Michael Caldwell (Reed), who asks her to visit his home for last-minute work on an urgent proposal. Since Dany knows that Michael’s wife, Anita (Stéphane Audran), will be home, she doesn’t expect anything out of sorts to occur, and excepting some catty exchanges with Anita, the visit is strictly professional. That is, until Dany retires to her room for the evening, Michael’s private study—positioned next to the bed is a nude photo of Anita. Awkward! Things get complicated once Dany drives Michael and Anita to the airport for a getaway, accepting the use of Michael’s fancy car for several days as payment for above-and-beyond services. Dany’s long trip to a resort town includes strange run-ins and, at one point, an inexplicable episode during which Dany badly injures her hand without any memory of how the injury happened. And so it goes from there, inevitably spiraling toward suspicion and terror and violence.
          Not much of what happens in The Lady in the Car makes sense, and only some of it is interesting. So even though Eggar provides an alluring presence and channels anxiety effectively, the movie overall is quite opaque, perhaps deliberately so, and frequently pretentious. (Try not to titter when Reed delivers this line: “That, as they say, Dany, is life.”) Happily, the movie gets better as it goes along, and the last half-hour provides not only plentiful scenes of Reed being anguished and/or menacing, but also a welcome dash of Hitchcockian kinkiness. Is The Lady in the Car anything more than a distraction, forgotten the instant it’s over? Probably not. But in its best moments, the movie aspires to a kind of literary elegance, and there’s some merit in the attempt. Incidentally, Japrisot’s novel was remade in 2015 as a French film, again called The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun.

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun: FUNKY

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Joni (1979)

          One’s religious viewpoint will determine one’s reactions to Joni, an inspirational drama starring the resilient Joni Eareckson as herself. While a teenager, she had a terrible diving accident, becoming paralyzed below the neck. Through a combination of guidance from Christians and support from loved ones, she forged a new path in life, eventually becoming an artist and singer in addition to giving motivational speeches at events hosted by the Rev. Billy Graham, who produced this biopic. With its one-dimensional approach to characterization and storytelling, Joni never tries to be much beyond an advertisement for the healing powers of Christianity, but it’s hard to call that approach insincere, seeing as how Eareckson tells her own story. (The movie was adapted from her memoir.) Therefore, the point here is not to suggest that Joni underwhelms simply because it’s a religious film—rather, the point is to suggest that viewers unreceptive to overtly religious messaging need proceed no further. Joni is less dynamic than the average ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie of the same vintage, and the best measure of Joni Eareckson’s acting ability is that she never acted again—one is impressed not by her communication skills but by her remarkable fortitude.
          The movie begins with her accident, then proceeds, bluntly and without much momentum, through the phases of her emotional and spiritual recovery. Long hospital scenes filled with despair lead to multiple surgery sequences, and eventually to Eareckson’s struggle while mastering the operation of a motorized wheelchair. She also learns to paint by holding a brush between her teeth. Concurrently, Eareckson gravitates toward religion, finding solace in Christian notions of the hereafter, where Eareckson believes her body will be made whole. As noted earlier, the viewer’s ability to embrace Joni’s themes is largely predicated upon attitudes toward Christianity. That caveat stated, it’s fair to describe Joni as a somewhat competent melodrama, acceptably filmed and buoyed by workmanlike supporting performances from players including familiar Hollywood character actor Bert Remsen, who portrays Eareckson’s father.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Separate Peace (1972)

          Lyrical and sensitive, Larry Peerce’s film of John Knowles’ acclaimed coming-of-age novel uses the friendship between two young men at a private school in the 1940s as a means of examining themes of aggression, jealousy, justice, masculinity, and even sanity. Although the film is modest and imperfect, the highest compliment one can pay is to note that the picture never veers off the path it defines during the opening scenes. From beginning to end, this take on A Separate Peace is a meditation on lost innocence shot through with pointed commentary about the costs of competition, hostility, and other craven aspects of the human experience, as exemplified by the way World War II lingers just outside the frame throughout much of the film.
          In a prologue, grown-up narrator Gene returns to the Devon School in the symbolically depleted season of winter, visiting a tall tree by a river where significant things once happened. He then flashes back to younger days, where teenaged Gene (Parker Stevenson) is nearly inseparable from his best friend, Finny (John Heyl). Introverted and studious, Gene finds the cavalier and irresponsible Finny intoxicating, a blonde paragon who seizes life with a vigor to which Gene can only weakly aspire. The first and cruelest blow to their friendship occurs one hot day when they run to that tree and prepare for a dangerous dive into the river below. Finny falls, breaking his leg, but neither of them is quite sure whether (or why) Gene rattled the branch upon which they were balanced, causing the accident. How the friends go forward after that event, and how they navigate the painful consequences of one confusing moment atop a tree branch, defines the courses of their lives. Meanwhile, seemingly peripheral dramas, such as the brief military service of troubled classmate Leper (Peter Brush) and the assumption of an authority position by malicious classmate Brinker (Victor Bevine), create additional tensions that impact the Gene/Finny saga.
          Some of the filmmaking team’s choices work better than others. Crisp long-lens photography lends both an icy remove and a sense of place, while delicate wafts of twinkly piano music accentuate the poetic flow of gentle dissolves connecting sequences. Less consistently effective is the acting, since some of the young players give tentative performances. (Leading man Heyl, a student at the school where the film was shot, made his acting debut with this project and never appeared onscreen again.) That some of the film’s most assured work comes from Stevenson, later of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, says a great deal about the film’s limitations. Yet the sincerity of Stevenson’s work reflects an overall seriousness of purpose that helps the movie, more often than not, surpass its tendency toward self-conscious artiness.

A Separate Peace: FUNKY

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Terror in the Wax Museum (1973)

          Yet another low-budget horror flick from Bing Crosby Productions, Terror in the Wax Museeum feels like a schlocky TV movie instead of a theatrical feature—and come to think of it, the storytelling would have benefited by truncation to 74 minutes, the standard duration for telefilms of the era, because Terror in the Wax Mseuem grows quite wearisome by the 90-minute mark. Still, seeing as how the movie is a derivative would-be shocker featuring several stars from yesteryear, it’s not as if the premise of Terror in the Wax Museum creates high expectations. From start to finish, the movie never tries to be anything but comfort food for fans of old-timey horror flicks, hence not only the vintage actors but also the absence of onscreen gore, nudity, and vulgarity. In short, if you can get behind a thriller that’s about as exciting as an episode of Scooby-Doo (and just as forgettable), then you might be the right viewer for this one.
          The title alone should indicate the tired plot. Sometime around the dawn of the 20th century, anguished artiste Claude Dupree (John Carradine) operates a wax museum with a chamber of horrors until he dies under strange circumstances. Afterward, interested parties including a former partner (Ray Milland), an innocent niece (Nicole Shelby), and a prospective investor (Broderick Crawford) gravitate to the museum while Dupree’s estate is resolved. Complicating matters is the presence of a serial killer who may or may not have been involved in Dupree’s death. Also involved are a domineering governess (Elsa Lanchester) and, naturally, a hunchback (Steven Marlo).
          The plot slogs along from one silly interlude to another, so the allure stems not from narrative ingenuity or even the efficacy of the film’s jolts, but rather from the generalized horror-flick vibe. Conversations about death, dark locations, spooky music—apply all the usual signifiers artlessly, and you get something on the order of Terror in the Wax Museum. Are parts of the movie laughably bad, and are other parts stiflingly bland? Sure. But, let’s be honest, the same could be said about many of the studio-era entertainments this thing was designed to emulate.

Terror in the Wax Museum: FUNKY

Monday, January 22, 2018

Warlords of Atlantis (1978)

          Whereas their previous fantasy-film collaborations were UK/US coproductions, the final ridiculous adventure flick directed by Kevin Connor and starring Doug McClure was financed and produced entirely by British entities. Although it’s less widely seen than the previous Connor/McClure movies, Warlords of Atlantis—sometimes known as Warlords of the Deep—is perhaps the most absurdly enjoyable (or enjoyably absurd) film in the whole cycle. Featuring hilariously silly special effects, a gleefully goofy storyline, and some of the most outlandish flourishes in the whole Connor/McClure oeuvre, Warlords of Atlantis is pure Saturday-matinee kitsch. That it’s quite awful when viewed from any rational perspective is beside the point; no kid ever watched an installment of, say, Buck Rogers expecting an edifying experience. Moreover, Warlords of Atlantis is probably the most thoroughly ’70s picture in the cycle, thanks to a head-trip sequence as well as costuming with influences from disco and glam rock. Think Jules Verne crossed with a Yes album cover, and you’re on the right track.
          The story is the usual turn-of-the-century hokum. Inventor Greg (McClure) and scientist Charles (Peter Glimore) venture onto the high seas and descend inside a diving bell, at which point they discover a pathway to the underground kingdom of Atlantis. More specifically, a giant octopus captures the heroes and their crew, dragging them to Atlantis so they can serve local inhabitants as slaves. Naturally, the locals are aliens from another world planning global conquest, and, of course, they’ve spent centuries kidnapping humans and altering the humans’ bodies by installing gills. While Greg rallies slaves for the inevitable revolution against extraterrestrial oppressors, Charles gets strapped into a super-powered helmet that gives him visions of the future because the Atlaneans think his superior intellect makes him an ideal coconspirator in their evil schemes.
          All of this stuff is eventful and zippy, though it’s even dumber than it sounds in this brisk synopsis. What gives Warlords of Atlantis a special kick are the out-there details. The faceless guards serving the Atlaneans look like refugees from a Mad Max theme night at a bondage club; the Altantean king’s outfit suggests a glam-rock bathing costume; and Cyd Charisse, of all people, plays the Atlantean queen. Yet even with all of this nonsense going on, Warlords of Atlantis is all about that gigantic octopus, rendered by sketchy miniature work as well as a full-size head and tentacles that are (barely) animated through puppetry or radio control or some other low-tech methodology. If watching a giant octopus attack a boat in full view of the camera doesn’t stimulate your pleasure centers, your inner child thrills to different types of spectacle than mine does.

Warlords of Atlantis: FUNKY

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Teen Lust (1978)

A more sensible critic than me would simply note that this film has also been released under the titles The Girls Next Door, High School Teasers, Mom Never Told Me, and Police Academy Girls, then suggest readers proceed accordingly—with titles like those, one knows roughly what to expect. But it turns out a few points are worth making, none complimentary to the filmmakers. First, Teen Lust barely delivers on that particular title. Several scenes feature young people craving sex, discussing sex, and having sex, but even more scenes lack carnality altogether. Second, Teen Lust offers truly strange renderings of human behavior under the guise of raucous comedy: a father suffering PTSD re-creates World War II experiences by terrorizing his son with a bayonet, a grenade, and a samurai sword; a young woman administers tough love to her alcoholic mother by force-feeding booze; teenagers make mischief by spraying each other with contraceptive foam; a mentally challenged fellow throws a burning mattress off a rooftop, then extinguishes the flame by urinating on the mattress; the PTSD dad cradles his sexy daughter in his lap suggestively; the mentally challenged fellow carries a condom, which appears to have been used, in his pocket; and so on. Third, Teen Lust was directed by the fine character actor James Hong, perhaps best known for playing the guy who makes artificial eyes in Blade Runner (1982). Prior to helming this disaster, he directed an X-rated porn flick under a pseudonym—and if this flick is any indication, Hong did not up his cinematic game while shifting to the mainstream.

Teen Lust: SQUARE

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Dagmar’s Hot Pants, Inc. (1971)

Softcore sex comedy Dagmar’s Hot Pants, Inc. was produced by a consortium of American, Danish, and Swedish companies, filmed in English, and released stateside with an X-rating. Weirdly, the film later became part of the MGM library (primarily, it appears, for streaming purposes), so that means in two different decades, American movie executives thought American audiences wanted to see this thing. Such is and was the mysterious power of the porno-chic period, or else why would a disposable 1971 skin flick remain available for viewing in 2018? Oh, well. Dagmar (Diana Kjaer) is a Copenhagen prostitute about to quit the business, so the movie tracks her frenetic final day as a working girl. Between making arrangements to sell her apartment and relocate, she services several clients, doing everything from deflowering a shy young man to enduring the overzealous ministrations of a chubby orchestra conductor. Despite a few meager attempts at character development, this is strictly lightweight fare for the heavy-breathing crowd. To give a sense of what the movie offers, the wittiest scene features Dagmar calling fellow hookers for help with a busy schedule, only to get polite refusals from one girl who says “I’m just too beat” (while getting whipped), from another who says “I’m all tied up” (while she’s actually bound), from a third who says “I’m dead tired” (while screwing inside a coffin), and so on. Just as Kjaer’s confident portrayal suggests she could have handled real dramatic scenes, the almost-imaginative comic bits suggest cowriter/director Vernon P. Becker could have edged further into outright farce. Instead, they made tepid smut.

Dagmar’s Hot Pants, Inc.: LAME

Friday, January 19, 2018

Bequest to the Nation (1973)

          It’s not accurate to say that making historical dramas insulates filmmakers from bad reviews, but it’s obvious that critics sometimes tread gingerly when analyzing posh costume pieces laden with unquestionable thematic weight—one never wishes to find oneself in the position of denigrating a piece for mustiness only to later learn that the piece has earned high marks for illuminating some chapter of the past with which the critic was previously unfamiliar. Conversely, occasional overcompensation is a factor, hence the dismaying tendency of some reviewers to dismiss all historical dramas as cheap ploys for accolades. These realities help contextualize Bequest to the Nation, which was made in the UK and released in America as The Nelson Affair. Despite somewhat lurid subject matter, the picture ticks many familiar costume-drama boxes, from high-wattage casting to lofty dialogue, so it’s plainly catnip for the Masterpiece Theater crowd.
          That does not mean, however, that it’s entirely a stuffed-shirt sort of a picture. Thanks largely to Glenda Jackson’s gleefully overwrought performance, Bequest to the Nation is entertaining and even a bit crass. Moreover, it’s only peripherally a history lesson, since the focus of the narrative is an unusual love story. In sum, Bequest to the Nation neither wholly ratifies nor wholly undercuts presumptions associated with its genre, so giving this one a fair shake requires close inspection. Revisiting historical episodes previously depicted in the Vivien Leigh/Laurence Olivier picture That Hamilton Woman (1941), Bequest to the Nation explores the relationship between Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (Peter Finch), England’s greatest naval commander of the Napoleonic era, and his extramarital lover, Lady Hamilton (Jackson). Despite considerable scandal, Lord Nelson abandoned his wife and took up residence with Lady Hamilton, granting her a sort of title by default even though she was common.
          At the apex of England’s sea battles with Napoleon’s forces, according to the script by Terence Rattigan (who adapted his own play), Lord Nelson withdrew from military service for an extended idyll with Lady Hamilton because she had grown weary of waiting to hear whether Lord Nelson had died in battle. A duel over Lord Nelson’s soul ensues, with Lady Hamilton arguing for civilian life while a sense of duty to country gnaws at Lord Nelson’s conscience. Woven into the narrative is the question of what status Lord Nelson might be able to offer Lady Hamilton should he die in combat, since she doesn’t have the protection of marriage. As is the norm for most films adapted from plays, Bequest to the Nation is intimate and talky, but effectively so; Finch and costars including Michael Jayston and Anthony Quayle speak beautifully, lending the piece old-fashioned luster, while Jackson achieves something closer to alchemy, blending insouciance, wickedness, and vulnerability into a persuasive characterization.
          Although the dialogue tends toward the pretentious (“England has no need of a saint at this point in history, Master Matcham, but they have great need of a hero”), posh cinematography and scoring by, respectively, Gerry Fisher and Michel Legrand, helps the film unfold smoothly. Better still, the piece concludes on a suite of poignant notes rendered vividly by Jackson. Thus it’s wrong to reject Bequest to the Nation out of hand as some safe museum piece, because it’s made of tougher stuff than that, and yet the idiom of the film has the familiar rigidity of entertainment aspiring to literary heft. The ferociousness with which Jackson channels her character’s vulgarity ameliorates the pictures most off-putting impulses.

Bequest to the Nation: GROOVY

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Pacific Inferno (1979)

The challenge when discussing this abysmal WWII saga isn’t explaining why it’s a bad movie, but picking the best examples to illustrate how it’s a bad movie. Perhaps it’s the way the first seven minutes of this brief action flick almost exclusively comprise stock footage. Or perhaps it’s the way the filmmakers regularly disrupt any sense of 1940s verisimilitude by awkwardly interjecting ’70s soul music, such as Edwin Starr’s furious anthem “War.” Or perhaps it’s the way star Jim Brown frequently slips into anachronistic dialogue straight out of a low-rent blaxploitation joint, as when his enlisted-man character berates a racist superior officer thusly: “Now you wait a minute, my man—you do whatever you want to me when we get outta here, but until then, don’t mess with my life!” Set and shot in the Philippines, the discombobulated and dull Pacific Inferno concerns a group of American POWs forced by Japanese captors to dive for sunken treasure. Among many galling logical lapses, the captors somehow have extensive personnel files on their prisoners, hence their discovery that characters played by Brown, Richard Jaeckel, and others are experienced divers. One would laugh at this degree of cinematic ineptitude if Pacific Inferno were sufficiently interesting to provoke any reaction beyond boredom. Better to keep a safe distance and ignore that fact that Brown did this to himself, seeing as how he’s listed as an executive producer. Hopefully he enjoyed some pleasant time in the sun between takes.

Pacific Inferno: SQUARE

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Two People (1973)

          Hating the intimate drama Two People wouldn’t require much effort. The acting by the leading players is vapid, the dialogue epitomizes the silliness of with-it ’70s lingo, and the storyline is trite. Yet Two People has something many similar films from the same period don’t, and that’s grace. Director Robert Wise, taking a break from big-budget epics, focuses on dramatic understatement and visual lyricism. Writer Richard De Roy drives every scene toward moments of quiet human connection. And what about those leading actors, Peter Fonda and Lindsay Wagner? At worst, they’re beautiful blanks onto whom Wise projects the tender emotions of De Roy’s script. At best, they compensate for their shortcomings by performing with great sincerity. Either way, they lend pleasing colors to Wise’s palette, allowing him to render a modest tale grounded in humanism.
          The story begins in Marrakech, where somber American Evan Bonner (Peter Fonda) receives a fateful visitor who arranges for Evan’s travel back to the States. Shortly afterward, American fashion model Dierdre McCluskey (Wagner) spots Evan in a Marrakech restaurant, taking note of his sad-eyed handsomeness. They finally meet on the train leaving town, and over the course of a long journey from the Far East to New York, they learn each others stories. She’s a single mother no longer in love with the child’s father, and he’s an Army deserter who recently surrendered to authorities after three years on the run. That these characters fall in love is no surprise, but delivering the unexpected isn’t the goal of a movie like Two People. Like a bittersweet love song, Two People is all about capturing small moments of intimacy and vulnerability with elegance and taste.
          Fonda’s casting is spot-on, because he brings so much rebel-hero baggage to the screen that he never needs to overstate anything. While any number of actresses could have played Wagner’s role, many of them with more gravitas, the friction between Wagner’s California-girl glow and her character’s wounded cynicism lends interesting dimensionality—Wagner’s out of her depth, but so is Dierdre. (Elevating a handful of scenes is the fine Estelle Parsons, who plays a fashion editor.) Is Two People pretentious? Sure, as when Dierdre spews this sort of dialogue: “I really object to the way you get to me.” And is it superficial? Yes. But beyond that special quality of grace, what redeems Two People is the limited scope of its ambition. Rather than trying to offer a geopolitical treatise, a trap that snared many other ’70s movies about deserters (and draft dodgers), Two People presents only what its title offers. Although anyone who derides this movie has ample reason to do so, those willing to overlook the picture’s weaknesses can discover a gentle viewing experience.

Two People: GROOVY

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! (1971)

Best known for his low-budget gorefests, exploitation-flick guy Herschell Gordon Lewis also made other types of bad movies, ranging from comedies to porno flicks. Like his earlier picture Moonshine Mountain (1964), This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! is a redneck saga about illegal liquor, and Gordon (who wrote, produced, and directed) takes the title somewhat literally. Although the consumption of white lightning doesn’t cause any fatalities, killers prey upon bootleggers, resulting in several gruesome onscreen deaths. As for the plot, it concerns a film-flam man who poses as a preacher and runs a moonshine operation out of a backwoods church. Presented in a dull but quasi-linear fashion, the story tracks the con man’s efforts to intimidate local liquor-store proprietors out of business, to bribe regional law-enforcement officials, and to put on a convincing show as a religious leader. Executed competently, this premise might have coalesced into a decent drive-in diversion. Executed with Gordon’s usual clumsiness and vulgarity, This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! is consistently bizarre, though not in a good way. The ersatz preacher officiates a wedding at which the male guests gang-bang the bride. A woman is stoned. Two people are crucified. Someone’s head gets blown off in a gory close-up. Sigh. Gordon fans may enjoy seeing one of the director’s frequent collaborators, Jeffrey Allen, in the showy part of the preacher (though Allen’s over-acting gets tired quickly), and cinephiles should note this movie contains both the final screen appearance of Golden Age screen star Tim Holt, who plays a G-man, and the first screen appearance of future L.A. Law costar Larry Drake.

This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!: LAME

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1972)

          Appraised solely for its political bona fides, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine is impeccable, conveying activist priest Father Daniel Berrigan’s poetic record of his involvement with the illegal destruction of Vietnam-era draft records. Every frame of the picture exudes righteous indignation, and the movie was released at a moment when every voice raised against an unjust war mattered. Seen today, it’s a bit of a slog even though it contains fine work by several terrific actors, especially the great Ed Flanders, who stars as Berrigan. The problem with The Trial of the Catonsville Nine today is that it unfolds as a scattershot expression of rage against the machine—specifically, the American military-industrial complex. Amid glorious speeches are heavy-handed inserts depicting battlefield atrocities and campus protests. It’s all meaningful, but it’s also monotonous and repetitive.
          In 1968, Berrigan and eight other activists snatched hundreds of draft records from an office in Maryland, dragged them to a parking lot, and immolated the records using homemade napalm. The activists remained in place awaiting arrest, hoping their ensuing trial would help draw attention to the antiwar movement. The trial resulted in convictions for all involved, though Berrigan fled, remaining a fugitive until 1970, at which point he was incarcerated for two years. The film opens with a brief dramatization of the crime, then shifts to a stylized courtroom set. Although Berrrigan’s original play was written in verse, the movie employs an alternate script by Saul Levitt, which transposes Berrigan’s text into dramatic scenes. In its best moments, the film has the tension of a proper courtroom drama, alternating heated ethical debates with brazen procedural maneuvers. In its driest moments, the movie becomes a hectoring leftist sermon that portrays the U.S. government as a corrupt empire.
          What redeems the viewing experience, beyond the beauty and passion of Berrigan’s language, is the acting. Flanders conveyed compassion and vulnerability with special grace, so he’s perfect in the leading role. Richard Jordan and Donald Moffat, also deeply humanistic actors, excel as two of Berrigan’s co-conspirators, and William Schallert displays unexpected colors as the trial’s sympathetic judge—what a pleasure to see him in a part this dimensional. It’s also worth noting the behind-the-camera participation of two important figures. Actor Gregory Peck, who does not appear in the film, financed and produced The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, while cinematographer Haskell Wexler, always eager to help an underdog cause, shot the picture.

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine: FUNKY

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Kongi’s Harvest (1970)

          For a brief period in the early ’70s, actor Ossie Davis pursued a sideline career as a feature-film director, generating a handful of socially conscious projects with questionable storytelling and uneven performances. His behind-the-camera aptitude never quite rose to the sophistication of his politics, but each of the features he helmed is interesting to some degree. Arguably the most problematic of Davis’ directorial endeavors is Kongi’s Harvest, the first movie ever made in Nigeria by a predominantly Nigerian crew. Adapted from a significant play by  Wole Soyinka and completed in 1970, the film didn’t reach American screens until 1973, and one gets the impression lots of post-production tinkering happened along the way.
          As in Soyinka’s play, the story takes place in a fictional African nation. Kongi (played by Soyinka) is a military strongman who seized control in a coup, deposing beloved King Oba Danlola (Rasidi Onikoyi), whom Kongi holds prisoner in a heavily guarded compound. As the occasion of an important annual harvest festival nears, Kongi schemes to receive the gift of the first yam, because doing so represents his ascension to the godlike status of the nation’s rightful ruler. Naturally, King Oba and his supporters resist Kongi’s plan, so as the story progresses, Kongi becomes more and more unhinged—desperation compels him to blackmail King Oba by threatening mass executions of political prisoners unless King Oba consents for Kongi to receive the yam.
          The intense narrative was particularly topical at the time the film was made, and as the recent fall of Robert Mugabe indicates, it’s not as if the blight of brutal dictatorships has left the African continent. Alas, good intentions don’t always make for good movies, which is where Kongi’s Harvest hits difficulties. Davis assembled a large cast of Nigerian actors for the movie, and some are smoother on camera than others. Soyinka dominates, churning through maniacal lectures and tantrums with such intensity that his passion for satirizing dictators is palpable. Nonetheless, some of the Kongi scenes are so over-the-top as to seem cartoonish, and Davis’ directorial hand isn’t sufficiently assured to fold farcical elements into the bleak narrative. Occasionally, Kongi’s Harvest feels like a compendium of footage from two or three different directors’ interpretations of the same material.
          Not helping matters are clumsy onscreen appearances by Davis, who shows up at random intervals to deliver narration directly into the camera. (Davis also provides the voice for a few news broadcasts and radio announcements.) Perhaps most troubling of all is the ending, which is considerably different than that of the original play—whereas the stage version ends on a note of grim absurdity, Davis’ move signs off with something much more conventional and heavy-handed.

Kongi’s Harvest: FUNKY